Classic CD Review: A Ballet of Human Sacrifice – Set in Prehistoric Mexico or Germany after WWI?
By Ralph P. Locke
Egon Wellesz’s Weimar-era criticism of the cruelty of nations victorious in war still rings hauntingly.
Egon Wellesz: Die Opferung des Gefangenen (ballet score)
Wolfgang Koch (Field Commander), Robert Brooks (Prince’s Shield Bearer), Ivan Urbas (Head of Council).
Vienna Concerto Choir, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony, conducted by Friedrich Cerha.
Capriccio 5423 – 56 minutes
Die Opferung des Gefangenen (The Prisoner’s Sacrifice) is a time capsule, twice as much. The work comes from Vienna, 1925. The recording – a world premiere – was made in 1995. More than 25 years later – and almost a century after the first performance of the work – the recording has finally been put on CD, allowing us to hear a work deeply shaped by the cruelty of the victors of WWI.
The composer is Egon Wellesz (1885-1974). This release follows many other recordings of Wellesz’s works that have been released on CD, including nine symphonies (that magic number!), String quartets and two concertos. A set of imaginative Robert Browning sonnets, in German translation, have been recorded by Renée Fleming and the Emerson Quartet and, like so many classic recordings these days, can be listened to on YouTube and other streaming services.
Well, to academics and music lovers who, like me, are “of a certain age,” Wellesz was a respected, well-connected, and widely published Austrian musicologist who ended up teaching at Oxford. His carefully constructed and influential scholarly writings and editions deal with subjects as diverse as Byzantine Christian chant (Eastern Orthodox), Baroque opera, Fux (the eminent Viennese composer-theorist of the 18th century) and Schoenberg (who was the first teacher). composition of Wellesz). .
But Wellesz was also a composer of great skill and great imagination, whose works received renewed attention, as did those of other composers who, like him, for the most part carved out a late or extended style. If you are drawn to the music of Hindemith, Honegger, Janáček, Zemlinsky or Korngold, the name of Wellesz is another one you will want to look for. His music was new to me, but I like what I heard. Quartet n ° 4, for example. In fact, Die Opferung des Gefangenen is more accessible than many other works by Wellesz (or, say, Hindemith or Zemlinsky). But first some basic information about the job.
Title page describes Die Opferung des Gefangenen like “A cult drama for dance, solo voices and choir [and Orchestra], from Eduard Stucken’s transcription of a[n Ancient] Mexican dance game, arranged and set to music by Egon Wellesz. “
Die Opferung was written in 1924-25 and performed in Cologne, Magdeburg and Berlin in 1926-30. It then disappeared until it was relaunched in 1995 – apparently as a concert piece with no dancers, sets or costumes (thus with a less “cult” quality) – in the performance which was released here late.
The dancers are at the heart of this work as it was originally conceived and performed. They perform the action and the chorus, for the most part, sings about what is or is going to happen next. The solo vocal parts are attributed to a few characters. I understand that each is the “double” of a character whose role is also danced. The captive prince mentioned in the title – the prisoner who will ultimately be “sacrificed” (put to death) – has no voice: his role is totally silent, indicating, I suppose, his impotence. But it forces the public’s attention all the more to his dances and gestures.
I would love to see a full production of this fascinating and colorful work, which for me contains echoes of some of Brecht’s (Lehrstücke) didactic pieces, such as Der Jasager (1930), as memorably defined by Kurt Weill. This work also involves the ethical conundrum of whether an individual – there, a schoolboy – should be sacrificed for a “greater good” understood.
The plot originates from an Aztec or Mayan ritual game and involves a tribal chief who, along with his people, compels the chief of a conquered tribe to don royal robes and marvel and enjoy pleasures and riches of the victorious kingdom. And then the local people, having both celebrated and humiliated the defeated leader in this way (I read some motivation in their actions), led him to the place where “Eagles” and “Jaguars” (i.e. – say the armed troops of the victorious leader) kill him behind their shields – echoes of the last moment in Strauss Salome (1905)! – then place his corpse on the altar while the choir sings hymns of praise to this “hero” whose spirit is now rising and who will take his place on a throne next to those of his worthy ancestors.
From today’s perspective, it can all seem hopelessly exotic and demeaning. But Wellesz would have viewed the work as a commentary on the decline of Western civilization, represented by the catastrophes of World War I. These catastrophes included, in the aftermath of the war, the punitive economic collapse of Germany, which was already , in 1925, by stimulating the rise of fascism. Hitler would seize power eight years later and oust Wellesz and many other notable musicians in exile. (Wellesz, a pious Christian, was of partial Jewish descent.)
Music for Die Opferung is distinctly streamlined, with frequent ostinato rhythms and the chorus often singing in unison. Sometimes I remembered Orff Carmina Burana (1937), some sinister moments in Weill’s Mahagonny (1930), or the chorus of act 1 by Puccini Turandot (1926), in which the people of Beijing urge the executioner to kill the princess’s next victim.
Some of the moments of moaning and orchestral envy or unaccompanied vocals are in a similar mood to passages from Debussy. The martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (1911). A first passage for full choir (track 4) and the concluding choir (track 19) make powerful use of short poetic lines, like the hieratic finale for male choir in Busoni’s Piano Concerto (1904), whose text praises the power and deeds of Allah (God). Other listeners will surely pick up different echoes and parallels.
The orchestral prelude gives a compact idea of the stylistic diversity and liveliness of the work. It opens with a pentatonic passage for brass in unison on drum rolls that reminded me of the Hollywood epics of the 1950s “sword and sandal” set in the Bible or in other ancient times – a period in which “primitive” and emphatically repeated materials were often considered particularly appropriate. Of course, some great Hollywood composers (eg Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold) came from the same cultural world of Central Europe as Wellesz, so the stylistic kinship can be quite natural!
The prelude continues with a rich strings passage in the form of a march reminiscent of Mahler, then dissonant and highly rhythmic music for large orchestra in the manner, for example, of Honegger.
This diversity of style continues throughout the work and, rather than a deficiency, feels like a systematically appropriate way of responding to changes in the scenario, like the respectful consideration of the choir after this staging: “The gesture of [captive] Prince expresses a noble decision and a willingness to face death. His warriors display the same attitude. As a result, the victors, from that moment on, no longer regard him as an enemy, but rather as a being who consecrated himself to the gods as a holy sacrifice. (You can hear the start of each track here.)
In the absence of a stage performance (or video) we have this recording, a richly informative essay booklet, the complete booklet (but in German only) with the detailed stage instructions of the score (all usefully track numbered). ), and a photo of a beautifully costumed 1927 production of Magdeburg. The photos, and others I have found online, suggest that “early Mexico” was not considered exotic as “other.” Rather, he was considered the archetype of all societies, especially modern Europe. Certainly, some characters may have feathered headdresses, but their clothes are very abstract and geometric, in the Art Deco or De Stijl style. And the bodies of the dancers clearly projected the nobility and menacing violence that still seem latent in the human soul.
All of this, and especially the synopsis, helped me rebuild the work in my mind and feel strongly involved throughout. Fortunately, my German is pretty good – others may feel half lost. Capriccio should do a little more to bring its fine products to the attention of music lovers outside the German speaking region.
The libretto also crucially misplaced an apostrophe: the role of the tenor is not “The bearer of the shield of the princes”, in the plural. He is the shield-bearer of only one prince: namely the alien warrior who will ultimately be put to death.
The conductor, Friedrich Cerha, is himself a composer, best known for having completed Berg’s final opera, Lulu. The performance is both powerful and, in its many colors, quite varied. The vocal soloists are firm and outspoken: they sing somewhat impersonally, as befits a highly ritualized piece of musical theater.
The acoustics are natural: fuller passages do not distort or overwhelm. This means that the dynamic range is quite wide. I turned up the volume in quieter times, and tried to remember to turn it down quickly when the silent passage seemed to end, hoping to spare my ears when the next fortissimo rolled around.
The musical style, as I suggested above, is extremely communicative. Wellesz was a very good composer: this unique composition is surely on the level of his best musicological work (that is to say of first order). I recommend Die Opferung des Gefangenen and recording it to anyone interested in twentieth-century “free tonal” composers. As a commentary on the inclinations of mankind, this remains as true as ever.
Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Outstanding Writing on Music. His last two books are Musical exoticism: images and reflections and Music and exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also in the form of an electronic book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Registration Guide and online arts magazines New York Arts, Opera today, and Boston’s musical intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary) and in the program books of major opera houses, for example Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). This review first appeared in American Registration Guide and appears here courtesy.